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Letters of past and present

We are living in complex and interesting times. Probably everything happens on internet, via all kind of digital networks without any physical trace and even history. Each day we deal with computers, smart phones, pads; with hundreds of e-mails, posts, tags, likes and comments. Nearly each person (exceptionally not in many developing countries) have a right to decide what to read, look at, watch, accept, refuse etc. We change history: we have a right to delete for example concrete messages from our inboxes. When someone has deleted a message, there is no more any footprint of it in our reality. Maybe it is nevertheless still airing in the complex corridors of digital world, but you can not grab it anymore. New era of digitalisation has many useful and helpful aspects in resolving problems and even in democratisation of knowledge. We have more liaisons with other people than before, but on the other hand the essence of our communication has become more faceless and fragmented. Sometimes we write even without any reason, any consideration, just for fun – like pulling a trigger of our spontaneous thoughts and emotions. We have forgotten to write something long, long letters full of thinking and analysing. Yes, times have changed, and we have no choice but to adapt to the new environment. However I would like to express a little apology about letter writing; about what we have lost after forgetting to write letters, yes these old letters that are lying somewhere in little paper boxes in attics and archives.

I want to cite some lines from a marvellous and brilliantly written book To the Letter. A Curious History of Correspondence of Simon Garfield (, @simongarfield): ”Letters have the power to grant us a larger life. They reveal motivation and deepen understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewire history. The world once used to run upon their transmission – the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall of ideas, the silent conduit of the worthy and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvellous day, the weightiest joys and sorrows of love. It must have seemed impossible that their worth would ever be taken for granted or swept aside. A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen.”

I agree with Mr Garfield. We have lost something special, something special that has been affecting lives and fates of hundreds of generations, a real oxygen which metaphorically said gave human wings to fly and feel something magical. In spite of that we should acknowledge the fact that a letter-writing has been nearly the same routine for people of the Victorian era as tweeting or emailing for people nowadays. We can just imagine how our dear Oscar Wilde or Francis Scott Fitzgerald would tweet today with angst, emotions and wittiness. Just imagine George Orwell tweeting in his favourite ”Fitzroy Tavern” (by the way there is a very tasty beer, especially Organic wheat beer brewed by the Samuel Smith Brewery) on 16 Charlotte Street to Jacintha Buddicom, Dennis Collings and Richard Rees. That could be fascinating indeed. We should acknowledge also another fact that these people living in the Victorian era or during first decades of the 20th century didn’t experience any transformation of communication, in this case transformation of the letter-writing. But we, we are living in a time when a letter-writing has been a part of our life, and instantly it has slipped by like an English summer.

As Garfield’s, also my intention is not to attack on the era of digitisation of communication. My ”attack” is on the nature of our life, on transformation of our forgotten treasures such as letter-writing and experiences coming with it. Letter-writing is one of the possibilities and ways to communicate with others. Yes, that’s it – with OTHERS. Sometimes I have a feeling that while writing to others in Facebook and Twitter I am not talking to my friends or my nearest, but to the system and to myself. Digital environments are creating a way how people are writing and expressing themselves. I mean that for example Facebook gives a sort of meaning for communication, not communication itself. We ”should” visit Facebook every day because it is commonly accepted component of our reality and life. We think that we are ”ruling” the social network environment, but in reality it is this social network that is ruling us. Having a look at our front page has become every day routine like washing our hands before a meal. Sometimes we even remember much better to have this little and smarty quick look at our page than to wash our hands. Dear reader, please remember, I am not trying to convince you that a social network is something bad. It is every man’s choice to form his life in a way he wants. I am just thinking.

Yes, you are right, there are different people. Every person has his own tastes, thoughts and opinions. For someone a letter-writing could be a sort of artefact of the British Museum, and for someone other little tiny smart phone could be a portal leading to the magical world of networks. We have to adapt to the new world of technology, but we shouldn’t forget our roots which are, believe me, a very important power between past, present and future. When we do forget our past, we do forget our roots. I do not mean that we should live in past. Not at all. We should live just now and to create our life from now, but we can not escape our past. We have to deal in some way or another with it. Yes, past has many horrible aspects, but it is a character of our life and our world.

Letter-writing is not only a way of communication. It is absolutely a magical doorway leading to hidden levels of our life and our soul. Garfield writes: ”It is a book about what we have lost by replacing letters with email – the post, the envelope, a pen, a slower cerebral whirring, the use of the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers. It is a celebration of what has gone before, and the value we place on literacy, good thinking and thinking ahead. I wonder if it is not also a book about kindness. […] Something that has been crucial to our economic and emotional well-being since ancient Greece has been slowly evaporating for two decades, and in two more the licking of a stamp will seem as antiquated to a future generation as the paddle steamer.”

Letter-writing is a whole process. Process of creation and art. With your love, ideas, touch, sense of smell, sight, vision, consideration you are creating your own authentic piece of art – a written letter from beginning to end. You choose a paper, a pen or pencil, a style of your own ”calligraphy”, mood, an envelope, a stamp, a post or a letterbox. You can not only choose a postman or a postwoman. Maybe yes if you are married with some of them. Letter is a real entity which is created of you, of what is happening in you: in your soul or mind. It is something unique. You give yourself for the creation of a real art of human being, an art of thinking, feeling and doing. When you write a letter, you can write it for days, for weeks or for months, even for years if you want. Same ”epistolary destiny” waits you while waiting for letters from others. In the 18th century a French philosopher and writer Voltaire could wait letters of Frederick the Great for many weeks.

Garfield tells a fascinating, amusing and funny story about Oscar Wilde and his way of letter-writing and especially mailing: ”He (Oscar Wilde) would write a letter at his Chelsea home in Tite Street (or, looking at his handwritten, ’dash off’ is probably more accurate), and because he was so brilliant and so busy being brilliant, he wouldn’t bother to mail it. Instead, he would attach a stamp and throw the letter out of the window. He would be as certain as he could be that someone passing would see the letter, assume it had been dropped by accident, and put it into the nearest letterbox. If we all did this it wouldn’t work, but only people like Wilde had the nonchalant faith. How many letters didn’t reach the letterbox and the intended recipient we will never know, but we can be fairly sure that if the method didn’t work well, or if too many were neglected because they landed in manure, Wilde would have stopped doing it.”

Letter-writing is a therapy. It helps, heals and offers an opportunity to know who you are, how do you think, what is important for you, what is the life, how do you live, how do you feel, how do you see the world and other people. Sometimes it is worth of writing just to yourself: write a letter and tell what do you think and what do you feel; tell that you love yourself, other people and this world, and put the letter into the letterbox and when you’ll get it, read it as for the first time. Internet does not give us this opportunity: it gives us virtuality, not humanity. Letter tells history about you. Please, write letters. Believe me it is fantastic.

L’Écriture est la peinture de la voix – Voltaire (Dictionnaire philosophique, 1764)

Writing is the painting of the voice


© Copyrights of the photography: Christian Albertan et Anne-Marie Chouillet “Autographes et documents” in review “Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie” 39 (2005).

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